As we were planning to open our doors and offer our first classes in 2009, we decided affordability and access would be a priority at Texas A&M University-San Antonio (TAMU-SA). As we have grown, this commitment to providing the highest-quality education at the lowest cost possible has not been lost. Today, our students pay the lowest tuition of any of the 15 four-year higher education institutions in San Antonio at around $4,000 per semester for in-state students taking 15 credit hours.

But tuition represents only one aspect of overall college costs. The costs of textbooks have risen–and continue to rise–exponentially over the past two decades, placing a heavy burden on students—a burden that often makes attaining a college education unattainable. We saw these costs putting unreasonable pressure on students early in our history at the College of Business causing students to not take classes, suffer academically when they did not purchase books, or drop out of school.

Something had to be Done

We decided to try an eTextbook program in the business school that would add a course fee onto students’ tuition for each of the courses using the digital course materials. The materials would be loaded into the learning management system (LMS) and students would have access on or before the first day of classes, regardless of whether they could afford it on their own because the costs of their eTextbooks are rolled into their financial aid package. (During the current school year, 81 percent of our undergraduate students are eligible for federal financial aid.)

Massive Cost Savings; More Degrees Earned

The cost savings to students with the program has been staggering. With the increased buying power of TAMU-SA and VitalSource, our eTextbook partner, we saved students in nearly 1,000 sections (business, education, and arts and sciences classes) more than $2.5 million dollars during the 2015-16 academic year compared to what they would have paid for print versions.

In the College of Business, that is an averaged realized savings of $1,374 per student. For many TAMU-SA students, this is the difference between completing a class or not, as well as passing or failing; degrees are attained because of these savings.

(Next page: Benefits of the eTextbook program for students beyond the cost factor)

Benefits Beyond Cost

But the benefits of the inclusive-access eTextbook program go beyond the cost factor. Our professors have a much higher degree of confidence of our students’ capabilities knowing they have books available to them when they walk in on the first day of class.

Dr. Kenneth Sweet, assistant professor of Human Resource Management here at TAMUSA, has said repeatedly that he saw anywhere from 50 to 80 percent of his students not purchase their books in a given semester at other institutions where he has taught. Of course, their performance reflected that and he never knew about until it was too late for the student to successfully complete the class.

Other professors credit the program with being able to move into the coursework faster. Under a traditional model, professors had to often wait until the campus store got new books in or they ran out of books. Our instructors don’t have to worry about that. They can move forward, and keep moving forward throughout the semester.

Moving Past Student Doubt

The average age of our student is 32, and with students who have more experience with the look and feel of print (as they were not exposed to as much digital learning in their previous educational experiences), there is some expected reticence. However, students have gravitated toward the model, even though we have a non-traditional age profile here at TAMU-SA.

The administration and faculty hear a great deal from our students about the convenience of not having to shop around for their books, confident they are getting the best price. There is also the convenience of having the book integrated into their LMS–a one-stop shop for their resources–and not having to carry a heavy book bag full of print text.

While not everyone is on board from day one due to varying degrees of comfort with digital resources, we have found many of the biggest detractors among both faculty and students dissipate after a few weeks of use of an eTextbook.

Recommendations

For anyone looking to shift the paradigm of enabling student success, I am very comfortable recommending an inclusive-access model. I would suggest starting small with a pilot and grow from there.

Find faculty and students who are interested in the concept and have them be advocates on your campus. Do not circumvent faculty being in charge of the content they select for their courses. TAMU-SA does not restrict the publishers they use. As a matter of fact, we have contracts with all the different publishers for course content. It’s very easy for faculty to adopt it and then to be advocates for that on campus.

When I look back at the growth we have experienced over the past eight years and the success our students have had, I point to our eTextbook program as an important driver in that growth and success. Our students love it, the faculty love it, and administration loves it.

There is a high level of satisfaction knowing a decision we made has had such a profound impact on students, their success, and their future financial health, as they will graduate with much less debt than those buying books under a traditional course-material model.

About the Author:

Dr. Tracy Hurley is the Dean of the College of Business at Texas A&M University-San Antonio. She has been with the institution since 2000, and has held many leadership positions, including the interim associate Vice President/Provost for Academic Affairs. She holds a B.A., MBA and Ph.D. in business administration from the University of Houston.